History of Snow Globes

You place the dome in your hand, turn it over and beautifully, magically the New York skyline, or your favorite Disney character or the Golden Buddha is engulfed in a swirling slow-motion blizzard. Everyone can relate to them – evoking a childhood memory or nostalgia of a simpler time.  For the moments that the snow descends, we’ve created a whole new landscape where everything is quiet and all you can do is watch the flitter-fall.

Snowdomes, snowglobes, paperweights, snow machine, snow shakers, snow scene, water domes, water balls, dream globes, blizzard weights or dream balls were likely derived from heavy glass paper weights which were popular in the latter part of the 1800’s. The glass paperweights were made from costly materials which made the popular item inaccessible to the general public.  Not only were snowglobes less expensive, they engaged the viewer.  Snow globes are dynamic -- creating a miniature snow storm descending on the encased diorama. 

The first mention of a snow globe featured a man with an umbrella displayed at the Paris Exposition of 1878.  Eleven years later at the 1889 Exposition, visitors came to marvel at the steel structure of the Eiffel Tower.  There are no examples remaining of these first souvenir globes – but others introduced later suggest that domes were created to commemorate the inauguration of the Tower.  The concept quickly became popular throughout Victorian Europe featuring religious themes and pilgrimage sites. 

A few years later, a Viennese man Edwin Perzy developed the same idea when researching a way to improve operating room lights.  A glass globe filled with water creates a magnifying lens by increasing refraction. To enhance the reflected light, Perzy put ground glass in the water.  When it quickly sank, he tried semolina which floated slowly to the bottom of the globe.  It did nothing to improve the light quality, but the snowfall inspired him to make his first snow globe: a reproduction of a Viennese shrine in a glass bulb with water, magnesium powder and rock.  The snow domes were exquisitely and painstakingly produced and are still in production today where they make around 200,000 a year outside of Vienna.

Opening Scene of Citizen Kane which Popularized the Snowglobe in 1940.

To become a wide spread global gift, globes needed to be manufactured more efficiently.  In 1927, an American, Joseph Garaja pioneered production improvements filling snow globes underwater.  They went from an expensive individually crafted object to a cheaply made mass-produced item.  Mass popularity grew in the 1940’s with the increased use of plastic and the development of the tourist industry.  For those who could afford to travel with their families, souvenirs were in high demand. In response to this new market, the snow globe became lighter in weight, dome-shaped on top of an opaque colorful base. By the 1950’s every city and roadside attraction had its own snowglobe souvenir.

I'm pretty sure, it never snowed there. 

Modern Globes:  The snowglobe fell out of favor in the 1970’s when it epitomized kitsch –but have evolved into something more sophisticated, intricate and valued among designers and collectors. Novelty gift manufacturers have upgraded the designs and components making them unique gift items often including beautifully modelled landscapes.  Some incorporate lights, music and motors eliminating the need for shaking.  Many high-end department stores introduce a custom design every year to commemorate the Christmas season.   

Collecting Snow Globes:  Snowglobes have become an increasingly popular collectible for both antique and novelty globes.  Actor, Corbin Bernstein may be the most prolific collector with about 8,000. Bernsen began collecting snow globes in the ‘80’s. “There’s something that happens to a collector, this internal voice that says, ‘I want to have one of each that is in existence,’” Bernsen says. French collector, Mireille Sueur built an extensive collection trolling flea markets, gift shops and tourist sites. Her first words of advice,  “make sure you know how to limit yourself”. 

French collector, Mireille Sueru with her extensive collection.  


Anatomy of a Snow Globe:   Originally the globes were made of glass and the figures inside were made of porcelain, bone, metals, minerals, rubber or wax.  The snow or “flitter” as it’s called, could have been ground rice, wax, soap, sand, bone fragments, meerschaum, metal flakes or sawdust. Producers tried everything.  The base was either round or square and may have been of stone, marble, ceramic or wood.  Today, all but the best quality globes are plastic.

The liquid is just water in the plastic snow globes.  Glass snow globes often include glycol, an antifreeze, to keep the glass from breaking if frozen. 

A little dust doesn’t bother snow globes – but they don’t like direct sunlight.

 “Snow domes are not only fascinating to look at, to hold, to play with, they are folk art”, says collector Nancy McMichael, author of Snowdomes(Abbeville Press).  “They are a bridge back to an idealized past we think existed but is actually in our head. It is something we carry with us.”